No Really I’m a Student Here

By JC Sandstrom, New Mexico State University

When I decided to try to write a blog post for ASHE Grads, I pitched it with:

As a non-traditional doctoral student and mid-career professional in Academia, how I fit into various student and graduate organizations is uncomfortable, awkward, and kind of weird. On the other hand, we bring “real world” knowledge and years of experience that can add a lot to the graduate school/student experience, if we are given the chance. I would like to share a self-reflective blog post on the challenges of being a non-traditional student in a doctoral program.

Now that I am writing it, I’ve realized that I need to give some of my background before I can address the main themes I want to address. So first, here is a little about me and my path to my program in Educational Leadership and Administration.


I am a part-blood Choctaw raised in Oklahoma in a fully assimilated family. My Father is a Swede from New York City and my mother grew up in the Kansas and Oklahoma oilfields. I was born and raised in Lawton, Oklahoma through graduating high school in 1981. I received a BA (History) in 1984 from the University of Tulsa (Oklahoma) and a Masters of Library and Information Studies from the University of Oklahoma in 1987. I have worked in various parts of the library industry for the past 30 years. First in academic libraries, then public, the for library vendors, then back to public libraries, and now back to academic. I also had a tendency to move all over the country, but that is a different story.

In 2007, while working for El Paso Public Library (Texas), I had the opportunity to work on my Masters of Public Administration (MPA). At 45 years old, my mind woke up for the first time in 20 years and I found happiness in the classwork, research, and writing that went into that degree. This program was designed specifically for employees of the City of El Paso and was made up almost entirely of mid-career professionals, just like me.   I finished this degree in the spring of 2010 and by the fall of that year knew I needed more. I was well and truly hooked on higher education.

This habit is part of what lead me in January 2011 to my current position as the Acquisitions Librarian at New Mexico State University. It took me two years to find the Educational Leadership and Administration (ELA) Department and I haven’t looked back since. This program though was different from my MPA program in that I suddenly found myself, not only older than most of my cohort, but older than many of my professors.

Uncomfortable and Awkward

When reflecting about my experience in this program I have to ask myself “where did the words uncomfortable and awkward come from?” “Kind of weird” is an offshoot of the others, so the rest of this post is devoted to uncomfortable and awkward. Uncomfortable turned out to be a difficult theme to work with, because I wasn’t sure what the source of my discomfort was. I had no problem working with my fellow students one-on-one. I had no problem working on group projects or even in class, yet I was uncomfortable. I finally realized that it stemmed from my dual status of Library Faculty and doctoral student. As a faculty, I have one set of roles and expectations that I have to take as a representative of the University while as a doctoral student I had a different set. This was exacerbated by several circumstances. First, NMSU’s enterprise system can’t handle multiple statuses for a single person. This resulted in many student organizations and opportunities being closed to me because to the computer, I was not a student. Second, as a librarian I was called on to put on my instruction hat fairly often to either trouble shoot access issues during class, or present on various resources in the library and how to use them. I must also admit that as a faculty member I had some advantages that graduate students don’t get, and I did take advantage of them. This all led to a level of discomfort that I am still overcoming.

I know exactly where the idea of awkward came from. It began when my first advisor was giving me a fairly canned speech about how I was part of the “next generation of scholars” and I had to explain to her that no, we were of an age and, based on undergraduate graduation dates, I was probably at least 5 years older than she. This type of awkwardness showed up several times over my course of study. Only one of my professors was appreciably older than I am and most were either contemporaries or much younger than I am. Among the students, those who approached my age still had children either at home or in college. As I don’t have children this wasn’t a connection. The awkwardness seemed to get even greater when in the course of a discussion on social justice I came out. It wasn’t a big deal, but finding that I had been out of the closet longer than most of them had been alive seemed to shake up several people. That I remembered things first-hand that they only heard about in history books or from their parents or grand-parents seemed to increase the awkwardness we felt around each other for a time.

What to do

So, as a non-traditional graduate student, I’ve got some favors to ask of you youngsters.

  1. Please don’t treat us differently than you treat each other. We are all here to get a specific education and it is hard enough without being treated differently.
  2. Give us the chance to be included. Have at least some student group meetings in the evening, so we can come in after work. If you are going out after class or meeting for a study session, let us know.
  3. Don’t hesitate to ask us questions and talk to us. We have years of lived experiences that might be able to save you some time or point you in new directions for your own research.

John Sandstrom is doctoral candidate in the Educational Leadership and Administration program at New Mexico State University. He is also an Associate Professor of the Library College Faculty and Acquisitions Librarian, which means he gets to spend $3 million per year on periodicals, databases, ebooks, and physical books on behalf of the University. His research interests range from Native American participation and persistence in undergraduate education to examining trends in funding academic libraries through a lens of social justice theory. As he writes this he is also working on the final revisions of his dissertation, developing five programs that have already been accepted, working on two chapters for a book, and preparing for his term as Vice-president/President elect of the New Mexico Library Association. In his spare time he is a singer, fiber artist (spinning and weaving), and semi-active member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. He is going to get some sleep real soon.


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